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Queering Irish National Identity?

Figures of the Republican movement loom large over histories of Ireland, and in conceptions of Irish national identity. Many queer ancestors claimed in Ireland were involved in the redefinition of Irish national identity and in the fight for independence, including Oscar Wilde, Padraig Pearse, and Roger Casement. The tension between the tenets of queer self-determination and the history of homophobia in the Irish nationalist movement, however, cannot be resolved so easily. Questions that still need answering include: where do queers exist in Irish and Irish-American history and identity? Can proud queerness and proud Irishness be claimed simultaneously, and in what context?

 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leaders of nationalist movements argued that homosexuality among the Irish was a result of contamination from Britain, a "pollution implanted by foreign hands." In an attempt to destabilize British authority to rule, they emphasized sexual immorality as an example of their moral corruption and highlighted sodomy and homosexuality as the worst offences. In 1916, the British Government released Roger Casement’s "Black Diaries," said to contain "homosexual content," to defray public outcry to his impending execution. This initially successful attempt to slander a martyr and icon of Irish republicanism reinforced the idea that homosexuality was a "pollution" in Ireland which needed to be reversed.

 

In the early 1990s and 2000s, however, views of nationalism and queerness as contradictory forces started to be disrupted. Alongside the "Celtic Tiger" of economic liberalization, Irish cultural and state actors celebrated a certain cosmopolitan homosexual identity, seen in the embracing of camp queer figures in popular culture. The figure of the Irish Roman Catholic priest, previously an icon of the "traditional values at the heart of the Irish nationalist project," instead came to be characterized as "foreign at home" due to increased association with clerical child sexual abuse. The hard-won decriminalization of homosexual acts in Ireland in 1993 prompted a re-examination of Casement’s diaries, with a handwriting expert declaring them forensically genuine in the same year. These shifts created an environment in which "patriotic reverence and homosexual love were acknowledged to coexist."


A black and white photograph shows crowds lined up outside a barricade holding little St. Patrick's Day pendants, waiting for the parade to pass.
A photograph taken by Roger Higgins of crowds lined up on Albany Street for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1951. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

The Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) may have played an important role in some of these ideological shifts. A group made up largely of recent Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans, they campaigned to be included in the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade during the 1990s and early 2000s under banners that proudly proclaimed the intersection of their queer and Irish identities. Starting in 1991, they were met with condemnation and outright denial from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the deeply conservative Catholic organizers of the parade. In 1993, the city filed an injunction against ILGO, preventing them from marching in the parade and prohibiting any potential counter-protest, making their fight an act of civil disobedience. Here, the impossibility of simultaneous proud queer and proud Irish identity is made salient.

 

Alongside blatantly homophobic responses, ILGO faced disapproval from much of the Irish-American community for diverting national and international attention from the Troubles, seen in an abundance of articles and letters to the editor in the Irish Echo and Irish Voice. They faced vitriolic responses from Irish-American spectators at each parade/protest, which Mayor David Dinkins compared to "marching in Birmingham, Alabama," during the civil rights movement.

 

Many acts of solidarity towards ILGO were made from Northern Ireland and Irish nationalist groups, partially prompted by national and international coverage of Irish-American disapproval. We can begin to resolve some of the contradictions between the ideals of queer and Republican identity by examining these actions.

 

Although Sinn Féin declared official support for gay and lesbian rights in 1980, this did not result in immediate or significant support for the gay rights movement. An article in The Captive Voice, a newspaper published by Sinn Féin and written by Irish Republican prisoners, however, advocated including gays and lesbians in the nationalist movement. The author, Brendí McClenaghan, imprisoned in Long Kesh, named gay men and lesbian women as "invisible comrades" who had been involved in the struggle for national liberation and independence "as long as any other section of our people."  He argued that "national liberation by its very nature incorporates gay/lesbian liberation as an integral part," and that homophobia within Irish society and the Republican movement "must be confronted not only by gays and lesbians but by everyone who espouses the ideals of republicanism."

 

Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon published "A Clear Signal" in the New York Times on St. Patrick’s Day in 1992, invoking Casement in his call to Irish-Americans "never again to be seen to rain on their own parade," asking if the "‘Hibs’ standing in the way of Irish Lesbians and Gays" would have "stopped Casement when he tried to land a boatload of guns on Banna Strand?" Muldoon’s criticism of the conservativism of Irish-America and questioning of the authenticity of their support for civil rights in Northern Ireland and of a claim to true Irish identity, epitomizes the creation of a queered ancestry of Irish nationalist figures and the defense of Irish national identity that the controversy prompted.

 

The Northern Irish Gay Rights Association (NIGRA) supported ILGO extensively during the 1990s. Secretary Seán McGouran orchestrated many of the solidarity actions organized by the group, including a picket of Aer Lingus in Dublin in 2000 to protest their sponsoring of the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade, documented in Upstart. The article also included a transcription of the leaflet which NIGRA passed out, entitled "Year Eight – End the Hate!" describing the Hibernians as "claim[ing] to be concerned about Civil Rights in Northern Ireland for decades," but more "eager to violate the Civil Rights of Irish people in America."

 

NIGRA’s public and repeated evisceration of the hypocrisy of the AOHA in defense of ILGO indicates the frustration some Northern Irish groups felt more broadly over the hypocrisy of Irish-American groups regarding the Troubles. Many Northern Irish organizations relied partially on monetary contributions from Irish-Americans in fervent support of civil rights in Ireland. However, the blatant disregard by Irish-Americans for the civil rights of queer Irish immigrants in New York and beyond revealed the insincerity of their claims of true support for the civil rights of all Irish people. Defending queer Irishness at home and abroad, NIGRA’s consistent prioritization of "St. Patrick’s Day Lesbian and Gay Solidarity" demonstrates the impact of ILGO’s actions on the agenda of Irish queer liberation.

 

Bernadette Devlin, iconic civil rights leader in Northern Ireland, faced negative response from the Ancient Order of Hibernians during her 1969 American tour for her outspoken solidarity with the Black civil rights movement. She also loudly declared her support for ILGO, saying:

 

 I will never march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade until I can march with ILGO. Twenty-six years ago we took to the streets in the North of Ireland to protest discrimination. Now ILGO is fighting the same battle on the streets of New York City. Americans who oppose discrimination against Catholics in the North of Ireland cannot turn around and discriminate against lesbian and gay people at home.

 

Devlin, by juxtaposing the hypocrisy of the Irish-American community’s avid support for civil rights in Ireland with their intentional discrimination against Irish lesbians and gays, placed ILGO on the side of Irish nationalism aligned with tenets of self-determination and the right to exist without colonial structures of violence. The actions of the AOH and the conservative Irish-American response are thus aligned with British colonial violence, and the suppression of Irish identity.

 

ILGO’s actions, and the loudly conservative response from Irish-American communities, prompted many political actors from Northern Ireland to declare support and offer solidarity to the group, endorsing their mission of queer self-determination. These responses proudly incorporated queerness within Irish national identity and marked varying presentations of sexuality as a specifically Irish trait, helping to resolve the aforementioned tensions. We can thus understand ILGO’s declaration of queer Irishness to be radically important to the conception of Irishness itself, with proud queerness and proud Irishness existing simultaneously and withstanding pressures from conservative and limiting beliefs.


 

Gracelyn Barmore-Pooley is a historian of gender and sexuality alongside American and Irish history, earning her B.A. in History (and B.S. in Psychological & Brain Sciences) from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2023 with highest honors. Her undergraduate honors thesis, “‘We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Irish’: Excavating Transatlantic Queer Identity through the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization” utilized extensive archival research from multiple continents to examine Irish-American identity making in the 1990s in the context of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade controversies. She is especially interested in uncovering and highlighting queer Irishness in American and Irish histories, and will be continuing her research later this year in the Irish and Irish-American Studies M.A. program at NYU Glucksman Ireland House.

 

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